Higher Education

New battles for student veterans require fresh strategies from colleges

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In 2008, the 9­11 G.I. Bill was signed into law, giving college­bound veterans the most comprehensive education benefit ever. As a result, veterans are choosing a collegiate path in record numbers. Unfortunately, feelings of isolation, rusty academic skills, and culture shock are among the major issues that our veterans are facing on campuses nationwide.

Dave Cass

College leaders are very concerned but when it comes to implementing an actual solution, and they are unnecessarily falling short. Conducting research and forming committees both have benefits but won’t help the student veterans who are struggling today. Colleges need faster, more efficient, implementable solutions.

When I hear colleges declare they are “veteran friendly,” my first question is “in what way?” The answer, “We have a center and a tiny support staff” is not enough to help a large number of veterans succeed in the classroom. Veterans are non-traditional students who require unique support. There is no reason for any veteran to feel alone when there is already a team of veterans on campus. There is no reason for veterans to struggle academically when they can learn crucial skills prior to joining the college community. Let’s look at teamwork and skills and offer a pragmatic solution that schools can
implement today:


Why is the military so successful on every battlefield? We go to war as a team; there are no singular acts in the military. The individual is literally surrounded by people with specific expertises. Teamwork and mentorship are built into military training, but they are largely absent in the university setting.

Leaving the team­centric military culture and finding success in the solo environment of college is often viewed as an insurmountable challenge. So why not make college a team sport? There is already a team of veterans on campus surrounding the student; they are just difficult to locate.

At the University of Colorado Boulder (CU), where I teach in the business school, the veterans’ staff consists of two individuals and yet we have approximately 700 veterans on campus. The mentor network is already there, we just need to find ways to tap into it. Veterans in law school are ideal mentors for pre­law veterans. Upperclass engineering students have valuable program knowledge that can be
shared with incoming engineers. Is it possible for the veterans’ services director, usually a retired officer, to be an expert in every career path? No. But a mentor network surrounding each student can serve as a valuable resource for academic, personal, and professional development.

Using Internet technology to build the network of mentors that never sleeps is an efficient solution. John Carroll University and Duke University are two leading schools that are implementing an online mentor network this semester. Their students and staff are benefitting by the ability to quickly help each other from any location without coordinating schedules. While a physical veterans’ center is important to building a sense of community, an online version of the community is much more accessible.


How is it that our troops are able to successfully repair aircraft, navigate tanks, and manage a nuclear reactor on a submarine? The answer is simple: we teach them how to do it first. I was a helicopter pilot and I think a pretty good one (I have just as many landings as take offs) but if I’d tried to learn on my own, I would have failed. In the military, we first learn skills and then we apply them. Why are we waiting until veterans start school before we help them to succeed?

The average student veteran is 27 years old and hasn’t studied for an academic test or written a paper
in nine years. Veterans are arriving to campus without the required academic skills. The style in which they learned military skills isn’t applicable to college. We expect them to figure it out as they go. Imagine if you asked an active duty soldier to “just wait and figure it out when the mission begins.” If we train for war during peacetime then why not put academic skills training online so veterans can train for success before school begins? Even better, do it in a manner so they can meet their new classmates and
advisers. Now their skills are developed and a team is in place before school begins.

Utilizing Internet technology is a key ingredient to creating a veteran community on campus. Addressing the concept of skills training prior to campus arrival is something that can also be quickly implemented. Taking action is critical, colleges need to create a team of veteran mentors, make them constantly accessible and provide pre­enrollment academic training. Or we could maintain the status quo and form yet another thought­committee or research project.

Dave Cass is an adjunct professor of business at the University of Colorado Boulder; CEO and founder of Uvize, an education technology company with a focus on academic planning tools for student veterans; and author of The Strategic Student: Veteran’s Edition Successfully Transitioning from the Military to College Academics. He is also a former Navy Lt. Cmdr. who served as a helicopter pilot in both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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